Parts, Purposes, and Complexities with Cardboard Automata

There are many different approaches that can be explored with any of our tinkering activities, and in our constant effort to develop and refine our own practice we like to vary our own ways of presenting things, and try out new stuff. Taking a page from an approach we tried in the past, during a recent PD workshop with teachers from La Scuola International School we adapted a thinking routine from Agency by Design’s Project Zero called Parts, Purposes, and Complexities in this manner.

We gave participants example movements with the sides covered up, a big sheet of chart paper, and a single colored marker. We asked participants or use the marker to sketch all the parts of the box they could see, identify their purpose, then try to imagine what mechanism might be inside the box to create the movement above, and make a sketch of their hypothesis.

Cardboard Automata at La Scuola Cardboard Automata at La Scuola

Immediately sketches and ideas started forming and being represented on paper, and we saw interesting strategies being used to figure out the mystery mechanism.

Cardboard Automata at La Scuola Cardboard Automata at La Scuola

One popular strategy involved using all the sense and the body to enact movement and communicate with partners ideas and key observations. Sound became a powerful clue, and I noticed several people taking careful note of when the paper covering up the sides bulged out during the rotation of the crank, or whether the triangle moved smoothly throughout its arc or had sudden “jumps” up or down.

Cardboard Automata at La Scuola Cardboard Automata at La Scuola

Others modeled what they thought they would find inside with found and improvised objects to scaffold their thinking.

Cardboard Automata at La Scuola Cardboard Automata at La Scuola

After some time we collected all the green markers and switched them for black ones, allowed the participants to open up their boxes, and instructed them to observe the mechanism inside, sketch the differences from what they imagined, and also carefully note which parts of the construction were glued to each other, and which were allowed to move freely. We were working with 50 teachers at once, and this activity typically requires a lot of facilitation, so we were hoping that by structuring this initial observation phase more rigidly it would help them avoid making costly mistakes when it came to building their own.

Cardboard Automata at La Scuola

After that, we opened up the activity to freely build, and the teachers were quickly engaged in their own ideas, goals, and aesthetic choices.

If you are experimenting with Cardboard Automata, or are planning on facilitating the activity with a large group of people, this might be a helpful approach to pursue. Try it out and let us know in the comments how it went!

Some highlights from the day below.

Cardboard Automata at La Scuola Cardboard Automata at La Scuola

Cardboard Automata at La Scuola Cardboard Automata at La Scuola

From planning phase to finished execution: a tinkering sign holder and a Neapolitan scene.

Cardboard Automata at La Scuola Cardboard Automata at La Scuola

A peacock’s tail feathers opening mechanism.

Cardboard Automata at La Scuola Cardboard Automata at La Scuola

A fantastic owl, and celebrating a success just as time was running out.


Cardboard Arcade 2017

Back in 2012, Caine Monroy of Caine's Arcade visited the Exploratorium at the Palace of Fine Arts. In July, 14-year-old Caine returned to our new home and built cardboard arcade games with us during our Infinite Versatility of Cardboard event. For the day, we invited visitors to build cardboard games alongside Caine. The arcade was adjacent to the Tinkering Studio, spilling out onto the museum floor in the center of the day's activity. We also hosted cardboard costume making and both small scale and large scale stop motion animation in the Tinkering Studio.

The Infinite Versatility of Cardboard

We supplied a wide variety of materials to build arcade games, including various sized balls, cardboard of different sizes and thicknesses, and a colorful array of masking tape.





The most whimsical element in the space was an arcade prize wall. I ordered a grab bag of prizes from Amazon, and had the fun challenge of displaying the items for others to use. I particularly like the ring and bracelet holders, cardboard shelves, and various found containers.

The Infinite Versatility of Cardboard


I also built a ticket dispenser out of a cardboard box for visitors to use in their games. The large rolls of tickets slid around on the dowel, so we added cardboard spacers to keep the ticket rolls from unrolling and tangling.


I placed an example table along the tube wall near the entrance to the building area. Visitors lined up along the outside of the space to wait for an open seat. When we noticed that wait times were taking longer than anticipated, the facilitators and I would pass the example games over the tube wall for visitors to play with while they waited. The games also provided a source of inspiration for some - there were different incarnations of pinball machines, marble mazes, and foosball tables throughout the day.


Thanks to all who came and participated in building cardboard games!

The Infinite Versatility of Cardboard

The Infinite Versatility of Cardboard

The Infinite Versatility of Cardboard

The Infinite Versatility of Cardboard

The Infinite Versatility of Cardboard

The Infinite Versatility of Cardboard


Automata & Reconsidering Materials

The wonderful world of automata is filled with humor and whimsy, but when it comes to making one yourself for the first time it can seem a little scary. Our advice is to 'go for it' ~ don't fret too much, take the leap and just try making one. You'll be able to really start tinkering once you get that first one out of the way.  Whether it’s the cardboard variety we make in the Tinkering Studio or you decide to jump into using found materials, you’re in for a mechanical adventure. Try thinking as expansively as possible about the type of materials you could build with.

Here are a few examples meant to spark ideas:
A teacher came up with the idea to use milk cartons instead of cardboard boxes since those were plentiful at her school.

How about an automata made of wire? In Africa children and adults make toys called Galimotos that are mechanical in nature and seem like a cousin to automata to us.  They're activated by a push instead of a turn of a crank.  There is a wonderful children's book called Galimoto with a story of a young boy who makes his own toys.  

*This automata can be purchased through Ten Thousand Villages 

Artist Alexander Calder, well known for his large-scale mobiles and sculpture, created a tiny "mechanized sculpture" in 1929 called Goldfish Bowl that we'd call an automata.  Lyrical and lightweight compared to some of his other work. Wire may seem like a departure for Calder but over his lifetime he made several pieces using this simplest of material. Three years prior to creating Goldfish Bowl he made one of our favorite mechanical marvels, Calder’s Circus, complete with articulated animals and performers.  If you haven't seen the film before, you're in for a treat.

This image is from the MIA Archive where you can find more information about the piece.

Calder's Circus is part of the Whitney's permanent collection - if you're near NYC try to see this show that runs through October.

You could also consider upcycled materials – UK automata artist, Keith Newstead, made this Frog entirely from plastic scrap found in the recycling bin. He has even made automata from items that washed up on a beach near his home.

Keith Newstead's trash automata from The Tinkering Studio.

Building a ship in a bottle is one thing, but fitting a functional mechanism inside of one is a lot harder than it looks. Helpful hint: we poked holes in the bottle using the hot tip of a soldering iron.
Automata in a Bottle

Here's a collection of 3 video clips showing wire automata made by visitors to the Tinkering Studio.  The "helping hands" set-up below is a work-around solution for dealing with teeny tiny wires in need of soldering.  It also happens to be a useful technique that's fun to master!


If you're feeling particularly hungry for a mechanical adventure, why not try making automata out of stale food?  We've never found more perfect cams than these ginger cookies (or biscuits as Sarah Alexander, of Cabaret Mechanical Theatre, called them). They're strong enough to use a hand drill on and have enough "tooth" to spin other cames with precision.  The mini rice cakes have to be really old in order for this to work. 

What the fork? Back Scratcher for a Chili Pepper Ginger-biscuit cams & Goldfish


Have fun with this idea & show us what you end up making - include the hashtag #tinkeringMOOC so others working on making automata can enjoy your efforts!




Cardboard costumes and a social media photo booth

The Infinite Versatility of Cardboard
Another cardboard activity along the side of the Large scale & Small scale stop motion animations in the event of Infinite Versatility of Cardboard was Making Cardboard Costumes. This time, we set up our favorite “Tinkering photo frame” for people to capture their cardboard costumes, and to take this photo booth experience online, we also set up a hashtag #cardboardtinkering and used a social media wall "Walls.io" so that we could collect all the pictures with the hashtag and display them as a live-updating photo album on the large monitor during the event.

The Infinite Versatility of Cardboard

This photo booth and live-updating photo wall was a great addition to the costume activity. I thought it was great to have a designated spot for people to take photos after all the hard work(!) of creating costumes, and also to see the photos instantly on the big monitor felt like a treat. You can check out the social media wall created on the event day here #cardboardtinkering!

The Infinite Versatility of Cardboard The Infinite Versatility of Cardboard The Infinite Versatility of Cardboard
For the activity itself, we prepared a wide range of examples from a very simple hat to an elaborate outfit and displayed them throughout the space. To feed the appetite for people’s creativity, showing the wide range of the cardboard costume examples, from a low threshold to a high ceiling, was really important. The visual board to show a starting point of how to make a simple head piece and shoulder piece worked as a good introduction and helped people to get started. We also had a board showing some decoration techniques.

The Infinite Versatility of Cardboard The Infinite Versatility of Cardboard
The Infinite Versatility of Cardboard The Infinite Versatility of Cardboard
Not sure how much those examples and the visual boards helped, but overall we were surprised at the level of creativity of people who made a variety of headpieces with intricate decoration, a cardboard backpack, a handbag, shoes with wings, a lion mask, a Hawaiian hula girl skirt, etc… People came up with their own designs, and there was plenty of surprise, joy, and pride! A lot of people walked out wearing their newly made costumes. I really enjoyed seeing the variety of outcomes.

Overall we had a great day making costumes. The photo booth and the social media wall was such a fun addition that we'd like to try more with different activities in the future.


Thinking creatively about Marble Machines

2017 FT Explainers training

Marble Machines is one of the core tinkering experiences that we offer in the Tinkering Studio. It initially started in a formal school setting, but has been used in museums, libraries, and in home and afterschool settings. One of the amazing things about this activity is that it is incredibly versatile, it just “works.” We have found it to be a perfect introductory activity to tinkering as a practice for learners, and a great training ground for facilitators to develop their chops and personal style, precisely because the design of the activity is so strong.

However, it does require a fair investment to collect the materials and build the boards, tracks, bumpers, etc., as well as collecting decorative materials, funnels, bells, and other things that enrich the activity. On the plus side, if you are planning to do this activity more than once, you can use these things forever. We’ve been using our current set for 15 years!

On the other hand, if you’re not planning to facilitate this experience in a repeated way, the investment of time and money may be too large. In that case we suggest you take tinkering to heart and get scrappy about finding alternative materials. 

Hoping to provide some ideas for creative Marble Machines, we have made a Pinterest page of some of our favorite ideas we’ve seen over the years. Here are some particularly low-barrier highlights:

Good ole' cardboard—tubes and tongue depressors makes for great experimentation and organic forms. Hot glue is easier than tape for this type of construction, but both are doable.

Gutter pieces attached to the backyard fence.

This is as simple as it gets: ramps and tubes using natural shelves and height differentials! There are commercially available solutions as well—small to large sets, indoor to outdoor.

Imagination Playground: large foam pieces can be configured to work as ball runs. One could also use pool noodles cut lengthwise to create large and flexible ball runs!

This photo was taken several years ago at Inventure Place -- we liked that they used real clamps and elements you could find at a hardware store. The structure reminded us of giant ring stands.

And finally something from my childhood: there is a time-honored tradition in Italy of building marble runs on the beach out of sand! With some practice you can build elaborate runs that twist, turn, and incorporate bridges and tunnels as well.

Enjoy this process and think creatively about the materials you choose. Ideally you will also be thinking systematically—what are the materials that you can use to build a marble machine that can be used over and over again—that is, one that is tinkerable). We’ve seen some lovely examples of marble machines that are glued together, but when they’re done… they’re done. How can you create a set of materials that is more flexible, can be used in many configurations again and again, and reused and repurposed for other projects that are imagined down the road? We have come up with one solution that works for us, we’re curious to see what yours might be!